Failure in Green – Jonah Howell
October 9, 2019
At six years old Malachi dreamed he was in love with a green girl. She was terminally ill, and it was contagious. He saw her crouching against a backdrop of black, hiding her face. He approached and embraced her and knew that he had penetrated into love’s untouchable essence.
Cut scene. Now he sat at a long dinner table. The green girl across from him radiated her charming disease. To his right, at the head of the table, his grandfather stood behind his chair. The green girl rose and embraced him, and her green colonized his aging body. Malachi met his grandfather’s watering eyes and saw that they had not changed.
From that night on, green has been the color of love in all its burnt melancholy. He has never remembered another dream.
The moment she invited him to her Episcopal church, Malachi knew he was lost. Head over heels into the void. That demonic fifth letter is green and imparts its green to every word that begins with it. Episcopal. Evisceration. Euphoria, ecstasy. It would be too generous to say that he could not resist. Resistance belonged, rather, to a different world.
Let us back up. Twenty years after his dream and three days prior to this fatal invitation, Malachi went to a coffee shop to meet Lucien. He had not slept well, and he entered through smokescreens and sat in a smokescreen. He vaguely registered that two women accompanied Lucien, and upon leaving the coffeeshop some indeterminate time later he vaguely remembered that he had spoken to one of them at length, though he could not remember her name. Neither did he remember her face or the sound of her voice, but her hair had stricken him terribly: Platinum, it made her look as though she were quadruple or one quarter her own age.
The following morning, he sat again in the same coffeeshop with Lucien. In the midst of an empty conversation, Lucien remarked that Kelissa had taken a keen interest in Malachi and wanted them both to come with her to a party that afternoon. Malachi did not know who Kelissa was, but he agreed.
Midway through the party Malachi knelt at the edge of a wicker loveseat. Kelissa sat on its edge, close to tears. The two had danced together, a somber twirl-and-dip, and Malachi’s muscles had all gone flaccid as the twirling Kelissa’s platinum hair feathered across his face. She had then stumbled away to greet some new arrival, and Malachi found himself in a titillating conversation with her beautiful friend, Siobhan. They drew away from the party as though repelled by some opposing magnetism and ranted and raved to each other, spewing ethanol to the sky in fits of laughter in the same way that Kelissa now spat ethanolic sadness into Malachi’s face. “I liked you, then you went and flirted with my friend.”
Malachi was overthrown, for he knelt in the eye of a pathologic storm, its bleached hair whipping his face. He stared intently at her watering eyes, her drawn face, quartered by the strain of holding back tears, and he said as softly as he could manage, “You’ve misunderstood. Let’s meet for a date tomorrow.”
Lying, now, at her naked side, he eyes the dark bedroom. A spiral staircase curves upward into an ominous black, out of which a faded teddy bear stares. It belonged, Kelissa had told him, to one of the children of the aged couple for whom she was house-sitting. Everything about the children’s room had been reverted, when they left home, to the way it had been in their early childhood: Malachi and Kelissa lie under sky blue sheets, and stuffed animals litter the floor around them. The closed door rattles as the aged couple’s two skeletal dogs claw at it from outside. Normally, Kelissa had said, she would sleep with them, but she could not bear the thought of the dogs watching as they fucked, so she had shooed them out into the hallway. They whined weakly and clawed weakly, almost ghosts.
On first entering the house, Malachi had taken an immediate liking to them, and they to him. They hobbled in his wake, their heads dipping with each step, constantly threatening a final and irrevocable collapse, and they rubbed their scarred ears against his legs, their tongues protruding tragically from between blackened stubs of teeth like the pumice stones the old woman kept in the bathroom to exfoliate her feet. They had tried to resist when Kelissa pushed them from the bedroom, but she was too strong. One of them crumpled under her insistent palm, and the other, certain that it could never recover from such a fall, limped out the door as Malachi struggled to pull its companion back onto its quivering paws. He eased it toward the door, and it feebly resisted, looking over its shoulder at him, its black hole eyes soggy with grief.
Then she had given herself to him frantically, grasping for submission, begging to be hit, for him to go deeper, harder, to choke her. As he tied off another condom, she lowered her eyelids and her voice, “Whoa, did you feel how deep you got?”
Visibly taken aback, he blustered, “About deep enough, I reckon.”
She couldn’t allow herself to laugh, so she grinned seductively.
After several more hours, mumbling in near-sleep, she invited him to church. In a quietly passionate impulse of self-destruction, he assented. Immediately he realized that he loved her, and he embraced her with all his limbs, as though trying to suffocate her. The dogs, bled dry of all their strength, ceased to scratch at the door.
One month later we find Kelissa and Malachi at a trailhead in southern Mississippi. Some new strength gathers Kelissa’s usually fragmented face into itself, and Malachi is certain that something will die on the trail, but he dismisses the thought as just another illusion of prescience. Such phantoms have plagued him since childhood. The forest’s dense, dark greens fade into thick swamp mud, and orb weavers arch above our couple, tossing down web fragments like rice.
One hour into the hike, Kelissa halts. She looks from tree to tree and retraces her steps, running up the trail and back. “Have you seen a blaze?”
Malachi is not an experienced hiker. “What’s a blaze?”
She cannot fathom that he might not know what a blaze is, so her eyes bolt wide in abject fear. “I haven’t seen a blaze in several minutes, and I’m not sure we’re still on the trail.”
“Don’t worry. We can just wing it. We can follow the stream back, regardless whether we’re on the trail.”
Kelissa’s eyes dart around the forest in desperate search of help. “We can’t get lost.” She pulls a map out of her bag and studies it, but its resolution is not nearly high enough to be of any assistance. She runs up and down the trail again, looks downstream, walks in loops around all the nearby trees, her steps progressing from arrhythmic to manic. Finally she returns and, turning away from Malachi, sits atop her bag, burying her face in her hands.
He repeats, “We can just follow the stream. Nothing’s wrong.”
“You’re a monster.” The shrill words shred between her fingers. Her back heaves as she gasps for breath, and she curls further into herself, her knees rising above the back of her head, her elbows almost touching her groin, gasping, quivering.
“I am not. But nothing’s wrong. What do we need blazes for?”
“You are a monster. A cold, inhuman robot.” Her head shoots up from between her sharply bent knees, and she glares at him. Tears torrent down her pale, drawn face. “How can you see me like this and say that nothing’s wrong? How do I know that you won’t kill me out here? How do I know you won’t just let me die?”
Malachi looks out into the trees. The thin brown lines of trunks scatter out into fog far away, and the setting sun swims through the mist and sets the trees ablaze in crimson wash. Without warning or cause a deer darts from behind a low shrub and bolts out into the distant flame, its hooves barely hitting ground. The immensity of the place, the infinite rows of lines on muck, silently roaring as they char, sets Malachi’s head abuzz, and he becomes light, euphoric.
“Kelissa, don’t worry. Let’s just walk.” Beneath the euphoria he curses his prescience.
Early-morning dew dripping down the sides of the tent above them, Kelissa and Malachi kneel, fitted tightly together. Sweating, they pant, and he embraces her, leaning his head forward onto her shoulder as she leans hers backward onto his. And neither of them can speak.
Inexperienced as he is, Malachi has forgotten to bring a change of clothes, so he slips back into the same underwear and shorts, soaked with dew atop sweat, that he wore yesterday. As he waits for Kelissa to dress, he dreads the day, the sores that will surely erupt between his legs as a result of his wet shorts, among other things he does not yet know.
After taking down the tent they walk in silence. The forest waits. Its elements vibrate to neurotic wakefulness with the new sun: The trees tremble to no avail, for they cannot run away; the deer, all skittish, darting away and towards at random, escape to nowhere; and the mud sucks only inches deep. Kelissa walks behind Malachi, and the back of his neck burns, though the forest fully shades him. Somewhere far away a cardinal whistles ascension in tense waves, ever on the threshold of a scream.
The sun has risen almost to its zenith before Kelissa asks, “What is God to you?”
“Nothing. I no longer think about Him.” Malachi betrays himself; he capitalizes the pronoun clearly.
“So what keeps you from killing me right now?”
“I like you.” He has never before considered the obvious sociopathy of his position.
“Suppose you don’t, by the end of our hike. Will you kill me then?”
Until this point he has focused on the trees. Euphoria, ecstasy, escape: He looks out into the surrogate infinity with awe, perhaps forced, but nevertheless felt. The mud beneath his feet pulls at him; every step is a triumph, and here and there a deer’s unfleshed pelvis or femur attests to that fact. Through the vast boneyard he has walked with his eyes to the divine wood. But now that she evokes them, his head drowns in a wash of images: Her eviscerated corpse lies at the edge of the stream, an estuary, he presumes, of the Mississippi River, and he eyes her bluing ears, eager to taste, perhaps, only a nibble, and he feels nothing, now that she says it, for she may be right: He may be a monster, a robot, who can turn empathy off and on at will, who can edge into and out of humanity, into and out of some appalling and/or awe-inspiring beyond, who can therefore not be trusted because what can it do to him if she dies, if she lies at edge of the estuary, her pale face evincing some eternal estrangement, a skeleton at last, her platinum hair wet and shriveling, like those sweet old dogs; or rather, what must it do to him, for it can do anything at all, but he may elect, and so nothing is necessary, and all is precisely up in the air, in the prematurely burning trees, which have evidently absorbed the tension between the two erstwhile lovers, seizing petit-mal in an unfeelable breeze; and Malachi, elated, echoes her sentiments: “Maybe.” Nothing but green as far as he can see. All his muscles and bones and tendons tingle.
“Not funny. Monster.”
He refuses to speak. She is certainly wrong, for she cannot speak, lying dead beside the stream, beside something else, something important, though he cannot determine what.
“Don’t you have anything to say?”
He does not, he cannot, so he says, “I was joking,” and they walk on in silence. Later, Lucien will tell him that Kelissa saw this hike as a test from God to show her whether he was “the right man” for her. But now he sees nothing but the forest and the trees. Branches ripple as unthreatening summer breezes capture and release them, and the orb weavers spin and jump, spin and jump, as they ever have done and will do unto extinction, and he stands always directly in the middle, even as he walks, and he can do nothing else, though he sees green in every direction, and so he longs impossibly to embrace it all, and he wishes he had convinced her to go back as soon as the blazes stopped, to return to her car and then home. Finally he envies the spiders.
At the end of the trail they part ways. They have not spoken in several hours but have hiked as quickly as they could manage, pausing only to determine how to cross the various streams and creeks that have barred their way. Malachi embraces her in farewell and, feeling her body pressed against his own, almost cries out, but he pulls whatever it is back into himself and simply sinks his head onto her shoulder, intent on melting into her, on gluing his head to her shoulder forever, but she backs away and turns quickly toward her car so that she cannot see his eyes.
He wants to drive north, to something else, something utterly alien, and he holds this craving at bay as he speeds down Interstate 10 back home, though it hammers at every inch of his skin from within, and he knows that, finally, he has caught the disease.